If President-elect Donald Trump makes good on his anti-immigration stance, it won’t save American jobs, say leaders of Chicago’s tech startup sector. Worse, the businesses that depend on high-skill technical talent will suffer and so will the nation’s competitive advantage, since foreign entrepreneurs drive innovation, jobs and the economy.
“President-elect Trump has misguided a lot of people suggesting that limiting immigration is going to keep jobs in America,” said Rishi Shah ⇒, CEO of fast-growing Chicago-based health information provider ContextMedia.
“If the Trump administration curbs talent, especially high-tech workers, companies will go and take that economic growth and shift it to other markets," Shah said. "There would be nothing worse for American workers than to curb the inflow of talent that would further grow our economy.”
Many in the tech community spoke out against Donald Trump during the campaign. More than 140 Silicon Valley leaders signed an open letter opposing his policies in June.
Immigrants founded half of America’s billion-dollar tech startups, for a total value of $168 billion, according to the National Foundation for American Policy. They also created an average of 760 American jobs per company.
Among these 87 unicorns — including Chicago-area companies Avant and Mu Sigma — 71 percent have immigrants in key management, production or development posts.
Without immigrants, there would be no Google, Apple, Uber, Siri, or a host of other companies that fuel the U.S. economy. The Broadway play “Hamilton” gives foreign workers a nod with the line, “Immigrants: we get the job done.”
While Trump fills out his cabinet and transition team, immigrants from STEM students to startup founders are making back-up plans. Meanwhile, immigration advocates are redoubling their outreach to the incoming administration on reforms to expand the path for foreign technical talent.
A son of immigrants, Shah co-founded ContextMedia with Shradha Agarwal ⇒, who was born in India and came to the U.S. in 2006. Shah co-leads the Chicago chapter of FWD.us, a lobbying group led by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to promote bipartisan “common sense” immigration reform.
Shah said that FWD.us has been working to raise awareness about the contributions that immigrants make to the economy. It also wants to make sure that the U.S. will be “seen as welcoming to all people regardless of their country of origin or other factors,” he said.
Should the worst-case scenario happen, John Bauschard, CEO of Chicago-based startup Strike Social, a social media advertising platform, doubts he could find immediate replacements in the U.S. for his immigrant workers.
“We have to fight for talent, because these kids want to go to Google. We’ll have to use off-shore talent,” he said, noting that he has operations in Krakow, Poland; and Manila, Philippines.
“You don’t need to be here to write code but I would rather have people here,” he said. “We need people finding apartments, eating at restaurants and paying taxes here.”
Bauschard also is co-founder and chairman of Chicago-based Road To Status, a two-year-old startup that provides a TurboTax-like system to help people file immigration petitions. The day after the Nov. 8 election, he saw a 10-fold increase in traffic to its website.
While Trump’s campaign focused primarily on illegal immigration, his position on legal foreign workers has been a moving target throughout the campaign.
In the current immigration vision detailed on Trump’s presidential campaign website, he vows to deport millions of immigrants, curtail foreign worker visas and ensure that open jobs are offered to Americans first. No one is sure how exactly these will play out once he takes office in January.
Donald Trump's transition team acknowledged receiving a request for comment from Blue Sky, but did not respond to questions as of press time.
“I have students whose visas will be up soon,” said Ellen Rudnick ⇒, adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “One student is already thinking of moving to Canada. They’re all scared.”
Executives have concerns in three areas: attracting high-talent STEM students to U.S. universities and keeping them here after they graduate; filling high-tech and engineering jobs to meet growing demand; and increasing caps for various foreign worker visas, including the H-1B visa widely used by the tech and engineering industries, now limited to 85,000.
Efforts to pass a startup visa have stalled. In August, the Department of Homeland Security proposed an International Entrepreneur Rule that, if passed, could grant qualifying foreign entrepreneurs a temporary stay for at least two years and up to a three-year extension to oversee and scale their startup in the U.S. The department is reviewing public comments before it rules on the measure.
Rudnick sits on the high technology team for the bipartisan Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, which is working on immigration reform for a variety of industries. While concerns are fair about visa abuse by larger tech outsourcing firms, she said that startups don’t have the cash or resources as large companies do to compete for talent in the current visa program.
“The H-1B system is flawed,” Rudnick said. So is Trump’s well-intended vow to give Americans priority in filling open jobs. “You can’t take laid-off auto workers from Detroit and put them in tech jobs.”
Also, the Immigration Coalition expects a massive shortfall in engineering talent if Trump proceeds with his proposed trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.
There’s already an engineering brain drain with fewer U.S. students and current Baby Boomer-aged workers retiring, said Dave Bender, co-chair of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition's steering committee, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies and chairman of the Logan County, Illinois, Republican Party.
“Infrastructure is so technology-focused today. It’s not just homegrown anymore,” Bender said. “We need to have a global workforce.”
Kate MacArthur is a freelance writer.